Unpacking the Viganò Letter

As Pope Francis was finishing his trip to Ireland in August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò released a letter claiming that the Pope knew about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's abuse of seminarians. Viganò further claimed in the letter that Pope Francis brought McCarrick back into public ministry after Pope Benedict XVI had placed sanctions on him in 2009/2010 for his history of abuse. The letter has been a shocking and controversial document during the Church's ongoing sexual abuse crisis. Almost a month after its release, the letter’s contents and implications require unpacking as the story continues to dominate discourse in the Church. The timing of the letter's release meant that the Pope had to answer allegations as he was leaving Ireland, a trip that many felt required him to make amends for abuse committed by clergy. The letter seemed to confirm perceived failures of the Pope in addressing sexual abuse after a summer in which evidence of the Church's abuse boiled over. Pope Francis himself had been criticized for his previous handling of sexual abuse claims in Chile and was met by protesters in Dublin. Earlier in the summer, a grand jury in Pennsylvania found that over 1000 children had been molested by over 300 Catholic priests over several decades. McCarrick was sanctioned in June for his alleged abuse of minors. He is now waiting to face an ecclesiastical trial. The letter claims that Viganò warned his superiors in the Church multiple times about McCarrick before Pope Benedict XVI ordered him into solitude to do penance. He also writes that he told Pope Francis that McCarrick had “... corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.” This warning, he says, was ignored by the current Pope, who restored the Cardinal. Viganò further claims that McCarrick was an advisor of the Pope. He details the way in which McCarrick assisted in the appointment of several officials. “The appointments of Blase Cupich to Chicago and Joseph W. Tobin to Newark were orchestrated by McCarrick, [Cardinal Rodriguez] Maradiaga and [Cardinal Donald] Wuerl, united by a wicked pact of abuses by the first, and at least of coverup of abuses by the other two,” writes Viganò. Wuerl has announced that he will ask the Pope to accept his resignation. The archbishop takes time in his letter to attack those appointees he mentioned. “Regarding Cupich, one cannot fail to note his ostentatious arrogance, and the insolence with which he denies the evidence...”Viganò ends his letter by calling on the Pope to resign, “Francis is abdicating the mandate that Christ gave to Peter to confirm the brethren.” Pope Francis, Viganò says, “must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”Seeming to bolster Viganò’s account is a letter from 2006 that recently came to light. This letter appears to indicate that Vatican officials were aware of McCarrick’s abuse as early as 2000. However, there are issues with the accuracy of Viganò’s allegations in the letter that some have used to challenge its claims. It is unclear, for example, if Pope Benedict XVI actually removed McCarrick from public ministry in 2009 or 2010, as the former cardinal performed clerical duties and appeared to act in a public, official capacity several times after those dates. He also does not say that Pope Francis knew about allegations that McCarrick had abused minors. Pope Francis would eventually remove McCarrick from office in June of this year for that allegation.   Furthermore, the archbishop spends part of his letter attacking homosexuality and forming a connection between the sexual abuse crisis and homosexuality. At one point, he cites statistics that he claims connect homosexuality and the perpetrators of abuse. This connection he makes seems to politicize the letter and points to an ongoing conflict in the Catholic Church. Viganò has been a conservative opponent of the Pope’s liberalization efforts. They had previously clashed over the meeting Viagnò arranged between the Pope and former Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to give marriage certificates to same-sex couples. The Pope recalled Viganò to Rome from the United States at his displeasure over the meeting. The ideological conflict between the two leaders specifically, and between conservatives and liberal Catholics generally, has been used by some to frame reactions to the letter. Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University, speaking to Vox, says that conservative Catholics like Viganò see the sexual abuse scandal as a moment when the Church can be turned back in a more conservative direction from the relatively liberal path it has taken under the Pope. This professor used this framing in an interview with Slate, to frame Viganò’s letter as a personal and political attack. Some conservative Catholics, like Ross Douthat, have claimed that liberal Catholics are attempting to protect the Pope in this moment. In the New York Time, he writes, “now it’s why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for... and all’s fair in Catholic civil war.” It is unclear how widespread this defense of “McCarrick’s protectors” is in the laity. Even before Viganò’s letter was circulated, the Church was facing distrust. Before the Pope’s arrival, Patsy McGarry wrote in the Irish Times, “It [the Church] betrayed its teaching and the people, abused their children, and facilitated that abuse through covering itself up to protect itself.” One in Four, an organization that supports victims of sexual abuse in Ireland, released a statement about the Pope's speech at Dublin Castle (they have not released a statement on the Viganò letter). “One in Four views the Pope’s speech at Dublin Castle today as a missed opportunity... While Pope Francis made reference to the sexual abuse, he failed to announce any tangible changes in Vatican law or policy that would tackle the sex offenders and protectors in a meaningful way.” The Pope has not directly addressed the allegations yet. Shortly after the letter was released, the Pope said that he would not respond and told the press to analyze the letter themselves. On 10th September, the Council of Cardinal advisors announced their “full solidarity” with the Pope, and that the Vatican was preparing a response. On 13th September, the Pope met with bishops from the United States. He also called for a meeting of bishops in Rome next February to address the sexual abuse crisis.It is unclear what an effective statement would be besides a clear confirmation or unequivocal denial. Elizabeth Bruenig, a left-wing Catholic writing for the Washington Post, writes, “Prelates, please listen... There are those among you who know the truth. Tell it now.” Church infighting over ideology would not help to solve the issue of abuse that has continued under successive popes. While another papal resignation may cause chaos, discovering who knew what appears to be the only way forward in the present crisis.